It could be said that the word "tragedy," just like "hero," is thrown around too loosely these days, but there are times when it is very apt. Virginia Tech is an obvious example of a horrible tragedy - and so, in my mind, is the death yesterday of David Halberstam in a car accident in the Bay Area. He was 73, which counts in most books as a full life - but for Halberstam, one of the most vital writers of the last 40 years, there was so much more to do. He was one of those artists of the word who wasn't going to retire until he was six feet under - indeed, his book on the Korean War is due out later this year, and he was in San Francisco to, among other things, interview Y.A. Tittle for a tome on what may consider the greatest pro football game ever played, the 1958 NFL championship between Tittle's New York Giants and Johnny Unitas' Baltimore Colts. That we will never read what Halberstam would have written about that sports classic is its own little sadness.
Halberstam won a Pulitzer for his reportage on the Vietnam War for The New York Times in the early and mid 1960s - he was so good that John F. Kennedy unsuccessfully tried to get him kicked off his beat. He went on to write some of the best historical non-fiction of the era about Vietnam (The Best and the Brightest) and the media (The Powers That Be) and the aftermath of 9/11 (Firehouse). But he also wrote a series of acclaimed, wonderful sports books that could almost count as his hobby - his wife called them "his way to take a break" - but nevertheless were a delight to read and digest. Indeed, I have read two of Halberstam's books about baseball multiple times, and each time it's like I was reading them for the first time. Summer of ’49 is a blow-by-blow account of the 1949 American League pennant race between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, with a particular focus on Ted Williams and an injured but still noble Joe DiMaggio. Read that, and you'll know that the current Red Sox-Yankees blood feud has roots deep in the historical soil. And October 1964 (which I started reading yet again a few weeks ago) deals with the Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals as the two powerhouses rumbled and stumbled to a titanic World Series matchup in that year of transition, both in baseball and society in general. Even if you don't like baseball, I recommend both books to you as examples of some of the best sports journalism around. And it's work like that that will make you miss Halberstam all the more - though you know the first thing he'll do in heaven is demand an exclusive one-on-one with God Him/Herself.